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Top 10 Hart Trophy candidates for 2018-19

The NHL boasts dozens of legit MVP candidates, but only some of them meet the award's unofficial common criteria, which remain consistent most years.

Hart Trophy winners, particularly in the current era, possess some common characteristics. They are typically forwards; 16 of the past 20 Hart winners are centers or wingers, with two goalies (Dominik Hasek, Jose Theodore) and one defenseman (Chris Pronger) taking it. Those forwards who win the MVP are often big-time scoring leaders; 11 of the past 20 winners won the Art Ross Trophy the same year as their MVP campaign, while those who didn’t still ranked among the league’s elite scorers. Meanwhile, only one player has won the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward and the MVP in the same year: Sergei Fedorov in 1993-94.

We also know the Hart Trophy winner is often tied to team success. Connor McDavid was voted most outstanding player by his fellow players last season, taking home his second straight Ted Lindsay Award, but he failed to secure a second straight Hart, presumably because many of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters docked him points for missing the playoffs. The last time a Hart winner missed the big dance: 1987-88, when Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins fell one point short of the playoffs.

So we have ourselves a typical Hart winner profile: forward, lots of points, playoff bound. It doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, of course. Might a player break the mold and win the 2018-19 MVP without meeting all the criteria? Here are my top 10 Hart candidates.

1. CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS

Award voting is subjective, lest we forget. The players let the world know how much they revered McDavid by voting him most outstanding a second straight year, and I wonder if that influence might subconsciously make the PHWA members rethink their picks if McDavid has another dominant year on a non-playoff team. He was definitely aware of the players/journalists divide the night he took home his second Lindsay while losing the Hart vote to Taylor Hall.

“I don’t want to bash on the media or anything like that,” McDavid said. “The Hart is obviously a very important Trophy. But to have players vote for it, it means so much. It’s so special to know they have that respect and feel that way about me. So it definitely means a lot.”

It’s important to note that the Hart goes to the player judged most valuable to his team. It has a different definition than the Lindsay, so it’s OK to see them go to different players. My first-place vote Hart went to Hall last season. But there’s a case to be made McDavid’s influence is so powerful that he’s doing as much for his team as any other player would, and that he’d be a shoo-in MVP on another team. McDavid also hasn’t peaked. As outlined in my Art Ross picks blog, the generational talents tend to max out at age 22 or 23. So if McDavid, 21, evolves further and laps the field in 2018-19, perhaps winning the scoring title by 15 points, it will be hard for any voter to deny him, playoffs or not. We have to name him the favorite considering he’s taken home two scoring crowns, one Hart and two Lindsays over his past two campaigns.

2. NATHAN MACKINNON, COLORADO AVALANCHE

MacKinnon, last season’s runner-up, checks many MVP boxes. He has the monster offensive numbers, he plays against elite competition every night, he has little depth behind him and plays for a team expected to compete for a playoff spot again. He genuinely evolved his mental approach to the game last year, so there’s a decent chance his shot total and shooting percentage have reached new, repeatable norms. Whatever success Colorado has again this year will be tied to MacKinnon’s stick, and voters love it when a single player carries a team on his back. That’s what won Hall the award last year. Same goes for Jose Theodore in 2002 and Hasek in his MVP years.

3. AUSTON MATTHEWS, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Too aggressive of a ranking for Matthews? Maybe. If coach Mike Babcock continues sheltering his young star, keeping his minutes down and reining in the power-play time, Matthews won’t have the statistical explosion he needs to win the Hart. But I’m playing a hunch that it finally happens for Matthews, the only player in the NHL over the past two seasons to actually perform similarly to McDavid in 5-on-5 action. Matthews’ well-rounded two-way game will also appeal to voters. If healthy, a 40-goal, 80-point season would be a conservative estimate. There’s upside for a true superstar performance. We can’t say that about too many other players, so Matthews is a Hart candidate because of his ceiling.

4. NIKITA KUCHEROV, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Kucherov was the second-best player in hockey last year – and that was only enough to earn him sixth place in Hart voting. Playing for such a stacked, star-studded team, sharing the ice with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, among others, seems to hold Kucherov’s MVP case back, and with good reason. Even without Kucherov, as amazing as he is, the Lightning would be a decent team. We couldn’t have said that about New Jersey, Colorado or Edmonton minus their superstars last season.

5. SERGEI BOBROVSKY, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Carey Price in 2014-15 was the last goalie to win the Hart, and he’s the only one to do so in the past 15 seasons. We’re unlikely to see 2017-18 Vezina finalists Pekka Rinne, Connor Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy in the Hart mix considering they literally played for the three best teams in the NHL last year and thus have a lot of powerful teammates helping them out. The Blue Jackets, however, lack a superstar. Artemi Panarin is a special player, but he’s not quite MVP-caliber. ‘Bob’ is their best, most important player and might be the goalie who influences his team’s fate the most right now, along with Anaheim’s John Gibson. In both Bobrovsky’s Vezina-winning seasons, he finished top-five in Hart voting. I’ve picked him as my Vezina frontrunner this year and thus believe he’ll earn more MVP looks, too.

6. SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Crosby has reached a fascinating phase of his career in which he feels like this classy elder statesman, a pure winner, one of only three players to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in consecutive seasons. Last season, he maintained his great two-way play, won 53 percent of his faceoffs, finished ninth in Selke Trophy voting and 10th in scoring, yet quietly slotted in at 17th in the Hart vote. That ended a streak of five straight top-five finishes on the MVP ballot. It’s too early to declare Crosby’s Hart chances dead at 31. He still plays an elite all-around game on a top-heavy team that depends a lot on him to stay successful. That said, he’s no longer a favorite at his age. Like Steve Yzerman, he’s sacrificed a little bit of offense to become more of a winner at this stage of his career, and the Hart vote still skews more toward the eye-catching point totals. We probably won’t see another 100-point year from Sid, and only one player starting the season 31 or older has taken home the Hart this century: Joe Sakic in 2000-01.

7. ANZE KOPITAR, LOS ANGELES KINGS

Kopitar is a two-time Selke winner and one of the world’s most complete players. If he couldn’t bring home the Hart last year, in which he won the Selke and had a career-high 92 points, it’ll be tough for Kopitar to ever do it. Voters seem to compartmentalize great defensive work by forwards separately from MVP-caliber play, which seems unfair, but that’s what the voting results tell us year to year. The counter argument is that goals, not preventing goals, win games, and that’s why the magical offensive players get preferential Hart treatment.

8. EVGENI MALKIN, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Malkin’s’ 98-point outburst last season reminds us he arguably has a higher offensive ceiling than Crosby at this stage of their careers. But Crosby’s presence constantly blocks Malkin from MVP consideration. Malkin’s lone Hart win came in 2011-12 when Crosby was injured most of the season, earning ‘Geno’ recognition for elevating the Penguins singlehandedly. He’s finished top-two in MVP voting three times, twice during seasons in which Crosby missed significant time with injuries. With Crosby insulating him, Malkin does get easier matchups. Of the 129 forwards who played at least 1,000 minutes 5-on-5 last season, Malkin had the eighth-easiest quality of competition. Life really is easier when you share a team with Crosby, and voters seem to notice that.

9. ALEKSANDER BARKOV, FLORIDA PANTHERS

Barkov does all the same things well that Kopitar does. They are the two biggest ice-time horses among all NHL forwards, and we should see a Selke on Barkov’s mantle in no time. His MVP chances aren’t just tied to his defensive play, however. Barkov’s scoring skill and hands are incredibly underrated. His spike to 78 points last season was the real deal and, at 23, he probably has one more rung on the ladder to climb. If he’s a top-10 scorer this year while maintaining his excellent standard of 200-foot play, he’s an MVP threat.

10. JOHN TAVARES, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

It’s possible Tavares and Matthews steal Hart votes from each other just like Crosby and Malkin do, which is why Tavares only squeaks onto this list at the bottom. Still, Tavares’ early-season chemistry with Mitch Marner suggests we could see Tavares set new personal bests in goals and points this year, and we know he’ll be entrusted with a lot of responsibility at both ends of the ice. It’s likely we see one of Tavares or Matthews earn serious Hart consideration this year ­– but probably not both.

Other Hart Trophy candidates to consider: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins; Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils; Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks; Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers; Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals; Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets; Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets; Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning; Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks; Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets; Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames; Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins; Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets; Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues; John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks; Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders; William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

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